The Borrowed, by Chan Ho-Kei, translated by Jeremy Tiang.
Plot: Hong Kong’s greatest detective is dying. His partner comes to his deathbed to seek help from his mentor with one final case. Then we move backwards through six different but interlocking cases.
When: 1967 to 2013.
The detectives: Inspector Kwan Chun-dok and Detective Sonny Lok.
Sense of Place: The novel (really a series of linked but separate novellas) covers 50 years of great social change. The question was whether we would get a sense of place for all five decades.
The answer is mixed. As the author explains in his Afterword, he set out to write a classic crime story, relying on mysteries and plots, but changed direction towards a novel about the state of society, focussing on character and situation.
That’s a difficult mix to get right, and a lot of intricate (and for this reader, sometimes literally incredible) plotting remains. At times, his inspired deduction makes Inspector Kwan resemble an Asian Sherlock Holmes on steroids, or a Chinese Hercule Poirot, pulling together overlooked evidence to solve baffling crimes like a magician pulling rabbits from his hat.
Each novella is based in a critical year or decade in Hong Kong’s recent history. Each story has a wealth of detail about where exactly the action occurs. Slowly a web of interconnected locations emerges, though not always with much physical description of what it actually looks like.
One exception is the Mong Kok market, in the second story which is set in 2003: “Mong Kok was dazzling as always. The multicoloured neon lights, glittering shop windows, throngs of pedestrians – as if the city knew no night. This bustling scene was a microcosm of Hong Kong, a city that relied on finance and consumption.” It’s a superficially attractive scene, but “Mong Kok was like an engine that could not stop running, fuelled by cash day and night, and when the legal sources of this fuel ran dry, dirty money came in to fill the tank.” This is a place of Triad organised crime gangs, and lots of drugs.
The stories spool back in time, through 1997 -the transfer of sovereignty from Britain to China – to the 1980s and 70s, decades of change and growing prosperity as Hong Kong reinvented itself as the financial powerhouse of Asia.
The author has an acute eye for the way political and cultural change fashioned the lives of the British and Chinese residents; “the colonials slowly turning local, while the colonised picked up the lifestyles and cultures of the incomers.”
The final novella – Borrowed Time – takes us all the way back to the Leftist Riots of 1967. A time of political turmoil as agitators, bankrolled by the communist Chinese state on the other side of the border, sought to ferment revolution and force the British out.
Retired Bloke Verdict: While this isn’t the perfect choice of book for this project, it still offers an overview of a part of the world that underwent enormous political and cultural change in the second half of the 20th Century.